I didn’t used to be a morning person. No matter what time I went to bed the night before, the shrill sound of my alarm always ripped me out of my dream world and back into reality, leaving me longing for another hour or two of sleep. I’d groggily get out bed, start my morning routine and try to psych myself up for the day ahead.
Then I discovered the practice of rituals. Similar to a routine, a ritual adds a level of intention, which took my morning to-do list and transformed it into an experience I look forward to. Even if I do wake up tired, something clicks in my brain as soon as I turn on my energizing morning music. I freshen up, do a 10-minute mobility exercise routine to loosen up my body, and then begin a “wash and learn” session where I watch an informational video about a topic I’m interested in while doing a load of dishes (my least favorite household chore and one I used to put off for as long as possible) while my morning tea steeps. When my tea is finished, I drink it slowly, plan my day and identify three major tasks so that I can be clear about my priorities for the day ahead.
“Rituals can make it easier to do unpleasant things,” explains Elizabeth Burrows, life coach and creator of The Life Edit Project. “Rituals can help us get better results in the things that we’re already doing.”
They can also help us overcome challenges throughout the day. “Any place where you have really intense negative emotions that you want to counteract, that’s a great place to introduce a ritual,” explains Burrows. “If meetings give you lots of anxiety, add in a deep breathing pre-meeting ritual. You’ll create and invoke this sense of calm before going into this thing that normally causes you anxiety.”
Rituals can make it easier to do unpleasant things. Rituals can help us get better results in the things that we’re already doing.
While a routine and a ritual might seem similar, “routines are just recurring decisions that you make in advance,” explains Burrows. For example, before bed, you brush your teeth, wash your face and change into pajamas, but there isn’t really anything special about it. “If you don’t have to decide whether to brush your teeth, you achieve consistency as well as efficiency,” says Burrows. “Whereas ritual can help you achieve consistency, but it’s about the elevation, not about the efficiency itself. Rituals have to be personal and purposeful, so start with the intent.”
“When I was in undergrad, I developed a ridiculous case of insomnia. The number of hours I would stay up without sleep became a running joke in my dorm,” explains Burrows. “It wasn’t because I didn’t want to sleep, it was just very difficult for me to get my brain to turn off and find rest mode.” Burrows wanted to find a resolution that didn’t involve medication or sleep aids, so she set out researching alternatives. She decided to create a ritual that would help her brain recognize that she was trying to shift off by creating rest mode cues. “I progressively dimmed the lights, brought the sound down and did things that my body found relaxing so that I’d end up in bed feeling that it was safe to go to sleep.” The ritual stuck. “That ended up being my nighttime winddown ritual for a decade. It wasn’t about the things I was doing, because I was doing them at night anyways, but turning it into a ritual helped me achieve sleep faster and better and get better rest,” says Burrows.
Routines can often be done mindlessly, whereas rituals are always done ceremoniously
Rituals don’t have to be daily practices. They can be a scenic weekly walk or making a big dinner from scratch once a month. Other rituals can be held around significant events like birthdays, life milestones and holidays. The beauty of rituals is that you get to choose how and what you spend your energy on.
Still stuck on where you can introduce rituals? “I think everyone would benefit from a gratitude ritual,” says Burrows. Take a few moments to sit, breathe and write down one or two things you feel grateful for. Whether done in the morning, at midday or at night, it “might take you all of three minutes but could help you feel better or give a little mood boost,” says Burrows.
I think rituals are a very Black thing. Almost every Black community and household already has rituals that maybe they haven’t identified or labeled as rituals, but they definitely count
Adding rituals to my day has been transformative. Instead of just going through the motions, I’m able to take control of how I feel. “Routines can often be done mindlessly, whereas rituals are always done ceremoniously,” says Burrows. My rituals give me a chance to slow down and be present. I have to be mindful and intentionally create space before I can begin. They make the mundane feel meaningful, and looking back, I can see that there have always been little rituals here and there, even if I didn’t recognize them as such.
“I think rituals are a very Black thing. Almost every Black community and household already has rituals that maybe they haven’t identified or labeled as rituals, but they definitely count,” says Burrows. “It could be something as simple as saying grace before eating a meal, or perhaps something more elaborate like having a big Sunday dinner with family at someone’s home once a month. Think about how many of us have memories of Saturday morning cleaning sessions with the music blasting and all the kids handling their respective chores,” says Burrows, a ritual that has created a near Pavlovian response in me to get the vacuum cleaner whenever I hear Kirk Franklin songs.
“All of these are rituals hiding in plain sight in your life,” says Burrows. “You can add to these rituals and make them your own or create new rituals wherever it feels right.”